Berberine, an over-the-counter supplement derived from barberry bushes, is the latest weight-loss remedy to gain traction on social media, with some users calling it “Nature’s Ozempic” due to its plant origins and growing reputation as an alternative to the popular prescription drug.
A search for berberine on TikTok yields thousands of videos about the supplement, with 90 million views total. Though some videos warn potential users about its possible side effects and drug interactions, many influencers are using TikTok to document its impacts on their bodies as they try to lose weight, manage high blood sugar, or improve PCOS symptoms.
Berberine is a compound found in plants such as barberry bushes, golden thread and tree turmeric. Its medicinal uses can be traced back thousands of years to Chinese and Ayurvedic practices, when it was used to treat ailments such as pink eye, urinary tract infections, and hypoglycemia. It is typically sold in powder or capsule form and ranges in doses from 500 to 1,500 milligrams.
In recent months, the supplement has been compared to Ozempic and other semaglutide injections, which require prescriptions. Those anti-diabetic drugs are typically used to manage weight and blood sugar, but have gained popularity as anti-obesity treatments and appetite suppressants. Although a 30-day supply of Ozempic can cost upwards of $1,000, a bottle of berberine ranges from $20 to $50, making it more affordable and accessible.
But doctors are advising consumers to proceed with caution.
“You don’t have to deal with a doctor, and it will be much less expensive (than Ozempic),” Dr. Pieter Cohen, a supplement researcher at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, told NBC News. “So from an advertising standpoint, it’s perfect. An active pharmaceutical drug like berberine, it’s not the kind of thing you should be taking willy-nilly.”
Health experts remain unsure whether berberine is effective or safe for weight loss. Some of the emerging research indicates that it may help people regulate their metabolism, but most of the research into the supplement’s impacts has been done in mice, not humans.
A review of 49 studies, published in October, found that berberine may provide some metabolic health benefits, mostly in the heart, but also some small benefits for weight loss. People who used berberine lost about one gram, or 0.03 ounces, per day, the review found.
Berberine has also been shown to be effective in managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and inflammatory diseases. A 2020 study found that the effect of berberine supplements on blood sugar levels provided a “significant cure” for patients with type 2 diabetes, obesity and similar diseases.
“We really need to see where the research goes. It’s too early to tell if it definitely helps with weight loss,” Jessica Cording, a nutritionist and author of “The Little Book of Game-Changers,” told Prevention. “With more people becoming aware of the class of drugs Ozempic is in, we’re seeing more people look to other options. But berberine needs to be studied more before we can figure out if it’s truly effective or safe.”
People with type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome that can lead to diabetes, heart disease, or stroke may benefit the most from using berberine, because it can help lower and regulate blood sugar levels. Although berberine can be taken along with some diabetes medications, it shouldn’t be taken as a substitute for diabetes medications, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Because berberine can help with insulin resistance and increase glucose movement, people with hyperglycemia can also benefit from it.
Some early research has linked berberine to weight loss or reduced body fat. While more research is needed, one clinical study found that participants with nonalcoholic liver disease who took the supplement daily experienced significant weight loss. Because berberine activates an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase, it can help regulate metabolism and affect body composition.
Like most supplements, berberine isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so health experts are advising people to be cautious when shopping for different brands, some of which have added fillers. People taking prescription medications should check with their doctors before trying berberine, because the supplement can interact with other medications.
Although berberine has been linked to an increase in good gut bacteria, most of its side effects impact the digestive system. The most common side effects of using the supplement include stomach pains and bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and nausea. Not everyone who takes the supplement will experience the side effects, but experts at the Cleveland Clinic recommend starting with a smaller dose to see how it interacts with your body before starting the recommended dose.
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